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Q&A with graduate student Jon Holt on his new EP 'South'

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<p>Graduate student Jon Holt releases his first EP, focusing on sweetness and nostalgia he experimented with when he first moved to Durham.&nbsp;</p>

Graduate student Jon Holt releases his first EP, focusing on sweetness and nostalgia he experimented with when he first moved to Durham. 

Second-year civil and environmental engineering Ph.D. student Jon Holt released "South," his first solo EP, on Aug. 26. A classically-trained drummer, Holt, 26, graduated from UMass-Amherst and spent two years in New Orleans teaching high school science for Teach for America before arriving at Duke. We sat down at Twinnie’s to talk about his musical influences, finding time for passions in the chaos of Duke and YouTube stardom. The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Chronicle: So tell me more about your musical background. How did you decide to make this EP?

Jon Holt: I’m classically trained as a drummer and I was really into marching band and stuff in high school and college. I did the marching band at UMass, I got to travel a lot with them, and I met some really, really talented drummers. College is also when I started to get into pop music and pop production...My third year in New Orleans, I tried my hand in production software. I started using Logic Pro, which is sort of like GarageBand, all grown up. I still had never sung at this point, really, other than, like, elementary school choir. I had a few good friends who were really good singers, and I would invite them over to my house and I would make some beats and stuff and have them sing and put it all together. I put out a couple of different tracks. I made a SoundCloud at that time.

When I moved to Durham is when I found myself all alone. I had these production skills that I had developed over the years, but I didn’t have any more singer friends. So this was last fall and winter, when I was like, well, I guess I’ll just sing for myself now. And I think that’s really sort of the period of time when I found my voice. New city, didn’t really have any friends yet, so I would just stay up really late at night in my house with my two pets and my wife, who I had just married in October, and just sort of experiment with some different sounds. I think you can hear on the EP, there are a couple of different voices that I use.

TC: It’s interesting to hear you say that you’re a newlywed, because I found the EP to be incredibly sweet. All of the songs are really kind of hopeful. Do you think that your wedding might have influenced the messages or the tone of the record?

JH: I think that I’m a romantic. I think I’ve always been a romantic. I think my personality just in general lends itself to a lot of the nostalgic lyrics. The sweetness and the nostalgia is intertwined. On my YouTube channel, I also have a really sappy proposal video.

TC: Careful, we’re going to link to that now.

JH: It’s funny. This is a separate conversation, but I orchestrated this whole proposal thing in New Orleans, and that video went viral. It’s got 2.5 million views. So I think I’m just sort of into the sweet stuff. I can’t deny that my wife has got some influence on some of the songs, but I don’t want to give her too much credit.

TC: It seems like you have pop roots, but take the first song, “Turnpike.” I found that to have a sort of indie pop sound, sort of like later Arcade Fire. And then you have “South,” which is more country influenced. Are the songs that are less straightforwardly pop on the EP love letters to unfamiliar genres, or are you trying your hand at country with a song like “South”?

JH: It’s funny. I don’t listen to a whole lot of music. It’s normal to go through phases of course, but like, I don’t have a whole lot of music on my iPod. I’ll do like a whole month of the Avett Brothers, for example. I think a lot of the different genres come from the instrumentation. The tune, “Once Upon a Time” started with this electronic keyboard riff, and then I was like, “Oh, that sounds really cool. I’m gonna keep it electronic and just stay on that level.” And then I heard a song by the Zomba Prison Project called “Please Don’t Kill My Child,” and that’s how I came up with the “South” riff. And then on “Turnpike,” I had sort of a reggae feel on the drums, and I took off with that, and it morphed into this reggae/electronic vibe. So I think my influences are extremely diverse because I come from these different backgrounds. I have the classical training, and then I have the New Orleans jazz stuff, and I grew up listening to 90s and early 2000s hip-hop. I can’t deny that’s a huge influence. But when it comes to the EP itself, I think the instrumentation has driven each track in a different direction.

TC: Fascinating. Ok, so having made this EP, what would you say to a Duke student who has a song kicking around her head and doesn’t know if she can find the time to make it happen?

JH: We all have the same Duke experience. We’re all super busy. We don’t have time to do anything. But the desperation, the struggle can also be a healthy influence. You mentioned that my lyrics are sweet, but I think there’s also maybe some struggle undertones in some of those songs. Like “Why can’t we get there? I almost have you. I almost lost you.” Those sorts of things. I think being a student and having every single day be somewhat of a struggle can drive that. What I did was, I would find some time on the weekends, stay up way later than I should have, and just sort of let the struggle come out through music.

TC: I think the last line of the EP is worth discussing. Could you talk about that line and what it means for Jon Holt fans? Are we gonna see more? Is this it?

JH: The last song is my favorite one. The EP is called “South.” It’s loosely biographical. I’m from New Jersey, I moved to the South. I broke up, I fell in love, of course I got married. You can track that pattern through the EP. The last song, “The One That Got Away,” is about getting on the road and leaving something behind that you really loved. The last line is, “Lately I’ve been thinking that this music is getting old / Maybe I should just start doing what I’m told.”

TC: And you repeat that.

JH: And then I repeat that. I think it’s hard. I’m 26, and you see a lot of people who were really into music in college and stuff and really went for it. There’s always the people who dropped everything and really, really went for it. The majority of those people, just based on the industry, don’t make it. It’s just statistics. I’ve taken sort of a different route. I took the overachiever route. I’ve graduated college, gotten a job, and here I am in grad school, and I’m still doing it in the background. Still reaching for that goal, reaching for that destination. And in the back of my mind, there’s always, “Isn’t this music getting old? Shouldn’t you just focus on your dissertation?” Aren’t there more important things to worry about than pop music?

I think the answer is “no.”

You can find “South” on Soundcloud at Soundcloud.com/jon_holt/sets/south. His songs are also uploaded to his YouTube channel.

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